The water crisis is so bad in South America's largest city that when rain began to dribble from the sky recently, workers in a downtown office high-rise stood up and cheered, running to the windows to celebrate each drop.
A majority of city residents recently surveyed said their water has stopped flowing at some point, usually at night. In some neighborhoods, people say their homes have no water service at all. Although scientists say that the drought has its roots in such changes as deforestation, analysts say poor planning and political manipulation by local authorities have exacerbated the crisis.
Authorities insist that they have not shut off the supply to any neighborhoods and that problems caused by a loss of water pressure may affect 1% to 2% of homes. They recommend that residents use home water tanks. But they acknowledge that without huge amounts of rain over the next months — "floods," said National Water Agency President Vicente Andreu — the crisis will intensify.
"The water has gone off almost every night since June, so we try to fill up whatever containers we can before then," said Karen Fernandes Mirante, a college student on the lower-middle-class outskirts of the city.
Brazil is extremely rich in natural resources, including water. But Sao Paulo, one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, with at least 20 million people, has a relatively sparse water supply largely reliant on six reservoirs filled by rain. Development has destroyed crucial forest cover for watersheds and springs, leaving the city, after a particularly dry season, at serious risk of running out of water.
At this point, the drought is the worst in the region in eight decades, and other urban areas in southeastern Brazil, such as Rio de Janeiro, are also at risk. In the short term, authorities acknowledge, all that can be done is to radically reduce consumption and pray for rain.
Brazil's long-range water supply future could be further affected by the deforestation of huge portions of the Amazon rainforest. In addition, authorities are being accused of poor planning and attempting to mask the city's plight for political reasons.
"Rains this year were as much as 60% less than in the driest years we have any records of," said Samuel Barreto, specialist for water security in Brazil at the Nature Conservancy. "But even before that happened, authorities here failed to address pressing issues on both the supply and demand sides."
The government of Sao Paulo, run by the opposition Social Democracy Party, has been accused of having denied a crisis existed to avoid allegations before recent elections that it mismanaged the state's water supply. According to audio released by Brazil's O Globo newspaper, the president of Sabesp, the water authority for most of the region, said during a recent internal meeting that she believed her organization should have been loudly proclaiming, "Citizens, save water!" but instead received different orders from superiors.
"I think it's an error," she said in the recording.
Meanwhile, in the nearby municipality of Itu, many have no water at all at home and rely on large government water tanks. Across the region, police have made arrests for water theft and residents have staged violent protests decrying the shortage. In Itu, demonstrators chanted, "We want water," and some hurled rocks at police who made arrests after protesters allegedly set dumpsters on fire.
"It is impossible to overstate how bad this could be," said Charles Fishman, author of "The Big Thirst," a book on the threats to water supplies worldwide. "No matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there is no conceivable short-term Plan B. There aren't enough water tankers in the world to supply this region in Brazil."
An October survey by the Datafolha polling company found that 60% of Sao Paulo residents have had their service interrupted at some point since September, mostly at night, and 75% of those surveyed believe the shortage could have been avoided with government action.
Sabesp, when asked how much of the city had service interruptions during the day or at night, said in a statement, "Even in times of peak consumption, there is no supply problem if homes have water tanks installed."
The U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, issued a report blaming local authorities for water supply problems, and she shot back at Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin after he criticized her findings. "There is a part of this that was predictable," she told O Globo. "So I tell governments, 'Plan, take actions, prepare.' And this applies to Sao Paulo as much as it does to other countries."
Sabesp said it had adopted various measures including discounts for lower consumption and diversion of water from other reservoirs in the state.
"But the problem," Barreto of the Nature Conservancy said, "is that the areas served by those other water systems have also not received enough rainfall. The risks just spread."
Bevins is a special correspondent.